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Promoting well-being in the legal profession: Practicing mindfulness

7/29/2019

July 29, 2019

Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely than the rest of the population to suffer from depression, stress and anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association. Long hours, dealing with difficult clients and opposing counsel, the pressure to meet billing expectations, and isolation make the practice of law one of the most stressful and psychologically challenging professions. In 2016, the ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation released a study of more than 15,000 lawyers and law students that showed 21 to 36% qualify as problem drinkers and 19 to 28% are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety and stress. The psychological pressures of law practice can potentially lead to the development of mental illness or substance abuse disorders which could impair a lawyer’s ability to competently practice law and, in more serious cases, lead to client harm. In September 2014, the ARDC looked at impairment data of lawyers disciplined between 1998 and 2013, and the results were startling:

  • 28% of lawyers disciplined between 1998 and 2013 had one or more identified impairments;
  • depression occurred in approximately 31% of lawyers disciplined between 1998 and 2013, nearly twice the rate of alcoholism;
  • drug abuse had risen dramatically, from 8.8% between 1998 and 2002, to 28.8% between 2011 and 2013;
  • 67% of lawyers disciplined between 2003 and 2007 with identified impairments were solos; and
  • 37% of Client Protection Program awards made between 1998 through 2005 resulted from the misconduct of impaired disciplined lawyers.

While these numbers are troubling, greater attention has been brought to this subject in recent years and courts, regulators, law schools, and the profession have come to recognize that adopting well-being initiatives is critical to improving the health and future of the legal profession.

The ARDC is focused on finding ways to improve wellness in the profession and take practical steps for positive change.  In the past two years, the ARDC has adopted regulatory objectives that prioritize lawyer well-being and endorse well-being as part of a lawyer’s duty of competence; expanded continuing education programming to include well-being topics; implemented a referral program that allows the ARDC to share lawyer well-being information with lawyer assistance programs; and adopted diversion programs.

Cultivating Mindfulness

In 2017, the ABA National Task Force on Attorney Well-Being issued recommendations for the profession to address the problems identified in the ABA-Hazelden Report, including the recommendations that there be increased education of lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues and that the profession try practicing mindfulness.  

On July 15, 2019, the ARDC released a one-hour CLE webcast on mindfulness entitled, Learning the Art of Mindfulness: A Wellness Approach for the Legal Profession presented by Nancy Nolin, a licensed clinical social worker and certified addictions counselor as well as a mindfulness mediation teacher. ARDC staff was fortunate to meet Nancy Nolin when she was asked to present a program on wellness at an annual meeting of the National Organization of Bar Counsel.  

What exactly is mindfulness? It is often described as being in the present moment. It’s a type of meditative practice focusing our awareness on the present moment while detaching ourselves from our reactive thoughts and feelings. Stress, anxiety and depression arise generally out of fear, our fight or flight responses in the brain, and that fear can manifest itself in the form of incivility, bias, anger and violence. By being aware of what triggers our negative thoughts and feelings, we can develop simple, daily practices to learn how to control those emotions. By practicing mindfulness, we can combat the storm within our minds and hearts, bring clarity to difficult problems, and achieve greater satisfaction in our practice and life.

In the webcast, Nancy demonstrates some simple, self-care techniques that help calm the mind.   
Some mindfulness-based stress reduction exercises she employs are:

  • slowing the mind down by practicing deep, controlled breathing;
  • interrupting negative thoughts simply by standing up and looking out the window;
  • keeping an emotions journal to explore rather than reject challenging emotions or situations; and
  • focusing on the people and things in our lives for which we’re grateful.

In addition to this webcast, the ARDC has on its website two, free on-demand webinars accredited for mental health/substance abuse professional responsibility CLE credit in Illinois. These webcasts have been viewed by over 10,000 lawyers since they were posted in 2018.

We can’t always avoid stress but it is possible to change our responses to it. Learning to understand, tolerate, and deal with our emotions in healthy ways takes time but with a bit of practice, we can restore peace and happiness in our personal and profession life and re-envision what it means to practice law.

Resources

All ARDC CLE webcasts, including the webcast referenced in this article, are available on the ARDC website at: www.iardc.org

Another resource for legal employers is the ABA publication, Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers (August 2018), by Anne M. Brafford, which provides resources and guides for firms on how to implement a well-being program.